Monday, August 19, 2013

The Great Cloud of Witnesses

Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost C, August 18, 2013

            Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

            Noah. Abraham. Joseph. Moses. Gideon. Samson. These are the heroes of our faith. These people blindly followed God’s vision no matter how outrageous it was. We have learned about these people since we were the youngest of children, and we have come to love them. These people fought bravely against enemies and led the Israelites into the land of milk and honey.

            But these aren’t the only heroes in the Bible. There are women like Rachel, Rahab, Tamar, and Ruth. There are lesser-known men like Enoch, Barak, and Jephthah. And heroes are in the New Testament too! Each of the Marys, Johns, and Peter are all inspirations to us today.  They stood by Jesus’ side during thick and thin, living into the gospel just as Jesus hoped they would.
            Throughout history, people have joined the “great cloud of witnesses” that the book of Hebrews describes so eloquently. Throughout time and space, people have prayed for God to guide them so that they may be beacons of God’s love. For some of them, that meant that they were called to ordinary lives like being nurses, secretaries, teachers, and farmers. Some have lost their lives because they stood up for political social causes. Others have lived into old age, continuing to preach the gospel through word and deed.

            One such model of faith from the early church is St. Marcella. Living in the fourth century, this woman was a great friend with St. Jerome, who once called her “The glory of all the saints.” Marcella was born into a wealthy Roman household, and she married into another wealthy family. Yet, after only seven months of marriage, her husband died.
Although men continued to court her after her time of grieving, she refused to remarry. Instead, she dedicated her life to chastity and charity. She prayed constantly, studied scripture, and visited shrines of the first Christian martyrs.  She donated much of her wealth, saying that she “preferred to store her money in the stomachs of the needy rather than hide it in a purse.”
In her faithful studies, Marcella learned of St. Antony who lived a monastic life. She was inspired, and she gathered likeminded women and created what might be the first convent. These widows and unmarried women also were wealthy, yet they too wanted to give to the poor. When Jerome visited Marcella and her self-made community, he compared these women to those who stood by Jesus. Marcella is a hero of our faith. (All Saints, p. 55)

These heroes of our faith are not always the leaders of the faith. Throughout the time of the Reformation, when Martin Luther was persecuted by the Catholic church, Lucas Cranach the Elder recorded this history through his artwork. He painted portraits of Martin Luther and his family and also painted Luther’s distinctive theology.
In Luther’s German translation of the Bible, published on the printing press, Cranach supplied all of the woodcuts displaying the most important biblical messages. Cranach’s triptych may be the most famous. On the right side of the painting is Martin Luther, standing on a balcony and pointing to the crucified Christ in the center. On the left hand side is the congregation.

Thus, Christ is always at the center – at the center of the sermon, at the center of the Gospel, and at the center of our worship experience. Christ crucified is why we have life, and Cranach displayed this for all in a prophetic way. Cranach’s paintings and woodcuts reached an audience that Luther’s writings could not. Cranach displayed Luther’s theology in simply profound ways.
Lucas Cranach may have been a small character in the reformation, yet he had an important role in the creation of the Lutheran church. New history was made this week as our current presiding bishop, Rev. Mark Hanson, was not elected to a third term.

Bishop Hanson spent the past twelve years leading the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He helped to bring us through some of the toughest times in our church’s short twenty-five year history. Through disagreements over sexuality and interpretation of scripture and through rough budget cuts, Bishop Hanson was considerate, graceful, and bold.
With every natural and national disaster, Bishop Hanson created You Tube videos to give us hope amidst tragedy. He always upheld the Gospel as he did the work of God. He worked with leaders of the faith around the world to foster ecumenical agreements. Bishop Hanson’s bold leadership brought our church to a place where we could move afresh under new leadership.

The theme for the Churchwide Assembly that happened this week is “Always Being Made New.” Indeed, this is the theme for the entire 25th anniversary celebration. So, as we are always being made new, the Churchwide Assembly considered new leadership for this church. And the delegates spoke.

They voted for a new Presiding Bishop, the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, who currently serves as the bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod. In the interviews leading up to the fifth ballot, Bishop Eaton spoke about returning to our Lutheran heritage so that we are not “generic Protestants.” She spoke about the diversity around us and our need to move forward. Bishop Eaton’s deadpan humor brightened the room.
In the news conference following her election, she said, “We don’t agree on everything in this church, but we do agree on the cross of Christ, and we do agree that we are going to stick together to have that conversation.” On multiple occasions, she said that we will need to get out of the way so that God can do God’s work through us. Most of all, “People want a place where they hear the gospel. They want a place where they are valued, made new in Jesus Christ.” (

Yes, we yearn to hear the gospel. In our world filled with tragedy and despair, we need to hear words of hope and healing. In this place, in this congregation, and in this church, we are valued as important people in the “great cloud of witnesses.” In our own special ways as we work together, we are heroes of the faith. As we minister to the hungry, to the poor, and to the young and old, we are making a difference.

God is working through us to make the world a better place. We can do all of this because Christ went before us. Christ is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who “for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Now let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us. Amen.           

1 comment:

  1. I love your illustrations! I also know another pastor in NJ name Marcella!